Cuddly Doom (Chapter 7)

Aug 14th, 2017
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  1. >For the third time today, I wrapped my fingers around the pistol’s slide, yanked it back with a melody of smooth, well-lubricated metal, and sent the magazine’s top cartridge airborne
  2. >As the notes of bouncing brass rang out three times against the hard concrete floor of the abandoned engineering laboratory, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was damaging the round
  3. >By contrast, I was so careful when I released the magazine, cradling it in my hand before setting it down, as though the rounds within were temperamental to fire with the slightest provocation
  4. >And then whenever I let the last round fly free a half second later, it always flew erratically out of the port and gravity had a field day
  5. >After inspecting the magazine and its function, I spun the outcast cartridge in my hand and, finding no blemishes, dents, or disfigurement, returned it to the stack of its associates
  6. >Gently shaking my head and chuckling at my own paranoia, I slid the magazine back into its steel-walled home, rechambered a round, and set the pistol on the floor at my side
  7. >Yes, it was true that a single jam could be my downfall – the difference between a mare stopping in her tracks, and wrapping her hooves around my face until I cried ‘friend’ through a muzzle
  8. >But was the remote chance of the brass taking on a few small dents really that big of a deal?
  9. >I mean, in the past four years, there were three remarkable things that I’d gradually come to appreciate about American culture
  10. >First of all, the fact that they were the cradle of rock and hip-hop, and did it well, meant they were their music was always welcome in my earbuds
  11. >Second, they loved their sports, and while there were some good golf courses near Seoul and Incheon, they couldn’t hold a candle to the rowdy fun of banging on the glass at a hockey game
  12. >And finally, Americans took their guns seriously… very seriously
  13. >They knew a lot about them, demonstrated a real passion for building and using them properly, and as a result, their roscoes were built like tanks
  14. >I’d never bought one myself, but a congenial neighbor I’d known for just under three years had a pistol and rifle that he was positively giddy to show off whenever it was appropriate
  15. >The way he could rattle off stats about weight, caliber, and manufacture was veritably moot when I could tell, simply by holding them, that the guns had been wonderfully, robustly made
  16. >He always had a twinkle in his eyes upon remembering how I’d been fascinated by his steel beauties, even going so far as to invite me to the range one day and covering the cost of ammo
  17. >It was a bit morose to think that he didn’t get to use them when they mattered, as he was certainly among the Pegasi I saw leaving his house early yesterday morning, bound for faraway cities
  18. >Still, his former self would’ve been quite glad to hear that the torch had been picked up by his impromptu firearms mentee
  19. >As I relaxed myself into a seated position against one of the laboratory’s benches, instinct prompted me to unsling the rifle from my back lest I use Colt’s innovation as an exposed backrest
  20. >Instead, as my hand caught on a prodigious backpack strap, I was reminded that I’d tucked the rifle away in favor of the unobtrusive maneuverability the solitary pistol provided
  21. >It was worth giving up five rounds of capacity if it meant I didn’t have a foot’s worth of barrel betraying my skulking approach around every corner…
  22. >Flexing my shoulders allowed the backpack to slide free from my shoulder, and a moment later its black polyester weave rolled into view, ultimately settling comfortably into my lap
  23. >With the exception of the sturdy rifle and its barrel protruding through a zipper opening, the backpack’s contents primarily slouched in an apathetic, semi-fluid mass
  24. >Amid the half-crushed fruit, grains, and supplies scavenged from several buildings on campus, the only sizable cargo showing its geometry through the backpack was a stray water bottle
  25. >Zipping open one of the smaller compartments, I shifted until the basement windows’ cloudy daylight cut through the dim room to illuminate my prize
  26. >It had taken a good portion of the morning, but after rifling through three labs’ worth of drawers, I could pore over nearly all the specific resistors, capacitors, diodes on my ‘shopping list’
  27. >I withdrew a small, battered journal from amid the pile of electrical components, shaking free a resistor that had wandered between its pages in the process
  28. >As I opened to a bookmarked page near its middle, my vision was filled with a hastily drawn circuit diagram of squiggles, dashes, and wavering lines in my own handwriting
  29. >Though cryptic to many, I immediately recognized every piece of the radio transmitter schematic and its individual purpose
  30. >With just a spool of wire and a bit of solder, the project would come together quite nicely, and I’d be one step closer to breaking free of a hellish equine destiny
  31. >I was about to close the journal when a quote recorded in one page’s margin caught my eye
  33. >The quote cut particularly deep, not only because they were Chloe’s final words, but because she had been absolutely correct
  34. >I suppose that was a fourth thing I’d come to appreciate about American culture: generally, people were much friendlier toward strangers than they were back home
  35. >When I wandered into a lecture hall yesterday morning to search for supplies, I did so without scrutinizing every seat closely enough for ponies, or equally threatening, armed humans
  36. >As I passed, Chloe could have just as easily lined up a shot and lodged eight grams of lead in my chest, but instead of landing in agony’s grip, I was only mildly startled by the sight of her
  37. “Motherf- Don’t scare me like that!”
  38. >She apologetically blushed and conjured a faint smile as the aim of her pistol sunk toward the floorboards
  39. >“Sorry, I didn’t know at first whether you were one of them… Name’s Chloe. Say, I’d really, really rather not go it alone here if you’re looking for a friend… What do you think?”
  40. >I lowered my own gun, intrigued but nonetheless leery about her offer
  41. “Is this some new form of mugging tactic with which I’m not familiar? What’s in it for you?”
  42. >“Having someone to watch my back? Holy cow, looks like someone’s excited to be a lone wanderer in the apocalypse”
  43. >I scratched the back of my head, attempting to suppress the same wretched standoffishness that had alienated a couple potential acquaintances in years past
  44. “No, I was just, like, making a bad joke. Really, I would appreciate someone to be a friend in whatever fucked-up fate has befallen this place. Call me Peter”
  45. >“Awesome! What kind of supplies are you carrying, Peter? Do you want anything to eat? I got plenty stashed away down by the lectern”
  46. >As I absentmindedly ran a hand along the length of a backpack strap, I pondered whether an response expressing prosperity would be immediately met by a gun in my face
  47. >However, as I took in Chloe’s body language, I could find nothing signaling mistrust or malicious intent, and amid only slight wariness, I answered with unfettered honesty
  48. “My backpack’s got plenty of food I found at the campus store before things got too too bad; if you’re short on fruits and vegetables, I can definitely provide you with some”
  49. >“I’ll keep that in mind – would suck to get scurvy after surviving a gauntlet of snuggly horses”
  50. >With a smile and a friendly nod, I led the way down the lecture hall’s steps toward the lectern, where Chloe swiftly gathered a few small boxes of goods she’d stashed beneath
  51. >We didn’t immediately have anywhere to be or anything to do, so Chloe suggested we pull up a couple chairs to the room’s corner where we could chat while keeping an eye on the doors
  52. >Somewhere between the unnerving silence of lurking through abandoned halls, and the deafening shouts of friends sacrificing their humanity, this gentle conversation was very welcome
  53. >Chloe talked about her studies on Carmine’s campus, her former roommates and life, and the pistol now firmly resting in her grip, which had, similarly, not belonged to her before today
  54. >I talked about my armament in kind, my own hobbies and formerly human friends, and the ill-fated doctorate degree that would’ve been within my grasp if not for the apocalypse
  55. >By the time I glanced up at the wall clock overhead, thirty minutes had passed in the timeless luxury of cordial conversation
  56. “Say, Chloe, do you want to trade, share, let me hang on to anything? I don’t know how you were carrying all of your things without a backpack”
  57. >My eyes wandered over her stacks of rations piled modestly near the chair’s base, many of the items appearing too cumbersome to easily carry
  58. >“I’ve just been… kind of bringing everything here, as a central location of sorts. I figure one of these days I’ll come across a backpack or something to help me carry them”
  59. “It’s helped me a lot. Shame, none of the students on campus that got turned were actually here at the time – there’d be backpacks all over the place…”
  60. >“Actually, I just thought of something. Would you mind keeping an eye on my things? I just need to make a run down the hall to grab one more thing, and then it can all go in your backpack”
  61. >After she gesticulated at the stockpile with her shoe, I found myself distracted just a moment too long to follow her, as she rose to her feet and one of the room’s doors hastily clicked open
  62. “Don’t you think-”
  63. >By the time my words floated over to the door, it had clicked shut, snuffing out the meager daylight that had briefly streamed in from the hallway
  64. >With a slightly irked sigh, I at least confirmed that she’d taken her pistol with her, which provided enough piece of mind to prevent my pursuit
  65. >After anxiously drumming my fingers for a few moments, I unzipped the backpack and began to fill it with Chloe’s supplies, ideally allowing us to advance our mission promptly upon her return
  66. >Even under the strain of two surviving humans’ worldly possessions, the backpack was still incredibly light, the fabric sneering at the very thought of being overloaded
  67. >As if to challenge it, I lackadaisically tossed my pistol in as well and zipped it shut, slinging the backpack into its natural position on my shoulders
  68. >As I watched the clock’s second hand slowly wander in its absurdist circle, I bit my lip and began to wonder how long it would continue to do so before Chloe returned
  69. >She said she’d just be going down the hall, right?
  70. >How long would that take… a couple minutes? It had been a couple already…
  71. >Apprehensively tapping my knuckles against the rifle did nothing to hurry the stagnant march of time, and after a few more seconds, I restlessly pushed myself to my feet
  72. >Briefly after doing so, a faint metallic sound resonated through the lecture hall as I checked the chamber and ensured a round was loaded
  73. >A soft plitter-patter of rain gradually crescendoed on the roof overhead, and by the time I’d steeled myself to investigate, a muted rhythm of footsteps could be heard beyond the door
  74. >A few seconds later, the footsteps manifested in Chloe throwing the lecture hall’s door open, stepping inside, and slamming it shut to provide the cacophony with a note of finality
  75. “Chloe, what happened? Where the hell is your gun? And what the hell were you going to get?”
  76. >As she leaned against the door with one hand braced on its knob, she continued breathing heavily, her eyes aimlessly surveying the floor as though the boards were swaying and wobbling
  77. “Chloe, what’s out there? Do you need me to check it out with you?”
  78. >She slowed her breathing enough to squeak out a few intermittent words between her gasps
  79. >“No… No... No, it’s… good that… that it was… just me…”
  80. >Her eyes darted about erratically, betraying some unseen mental struggle raging in her mind
  81. “What do you mean? Should we not go back out there?”
  82. >While she was still heavily relying upon the door to support her, Chloe’s legs were visibly struggling to keep her righted, the limbs weakly trembling as though supporting a heavy barbell
  83. >With a pitiful moan of discomfort, Chloe shifted one of her legs to widen her stance, sending forth a loud crash as she slumped against a different spot at the door’s center
  84. >She tersely lifted her head from its limply hung posture, and as she did so, muddled daylight danced off the beads of sweat forming on her forehead
  85. >Despite the lack of visible wounds, every action that her muscles attempted to carry out was incessantly met with a faint, desirous groan
  86. >“We… we… we need to do something… let’s go… together…”
  87. >She leaned away from the wall and began to close the twenty feet of distance between us, shambling uncomfortably through each step as her head hung passively
  88. “Chloe, wait, stop… stop walking towards me… Stop!”
  89. >Upon immediately refusing to so much as acknowledge my words, I levelled the rifle’s barrel at her, the shift of glinting metal suddenly seizing her attention
  90. >Her eyes went wide as a shout, profusely dripping with horror, filled the air
  91. >“No, Peter! Don’t! D… Don’t… aaaaAHHH!”
  92. >With the adrenaline of alarm coursing through her blood, a pair of fully formed wings strained against the back of her shirt, tearing the garment at its seams with a din of shredded fabric
  93. >Chloe collapsed to her hands and knees, shivering as the bright teal feathers stood on end and twitched animatedly among the dim grey of the lecture hall
  94. >Muscles rippled in her arms and torso as her hands repeatedly clenched and relaxed, the act made even more appalling by the teal fur and slightly shifted structures adorning her flat chest
  95. “Chloe, what the fuck?!”
  96. >“They had an ambush prepared… It didn’t matter that I had a gun… And I don’t any more after it got too difficult to hold…”
  97. “Never mind your gun! You have a pair of fucking wings sticking out of your back!”
  98. >“Sure, that may be the case, but I’m still myself inside, where it matters… And… at least it was only me…”
  99. >She was having less trouble pronouncing words and sentences now that she didn’t need to focus on the difficulty of standing upright, or keeping her wings carefully tucked in
  100. >Still, the fact that such efforts had been so strenuous were unmistakable indicators that the infection had progressed quite far already
  101. >As if to confirm my fears, Chloe’s jeans slowly slid down towards her knees, almost imperceptibly as each labored breath brought about a half inch of denim movement
  102. >In the process of doing so, thick patches of teal fur were revealed on her swelling, muscular haunches, as a few strands of blonde tail hair snaked from the protrusion at the base of her spine
  103. >Most of the tail remained tucked tightly into her pants, but as Chloe let out a pleading, bestial moan, she clearly begged for the equine appendage to feel release
  104. “Holy hell, you didn’t even lock that door behind you!”
  105. >I took a single brisk step, with the forethought to make a wide arc around Chloe, before her choked words cut me off
  106. >“That’s not a problem – they weren’t coming after me…”
  107. “What do you mean they weren’t? They already got the wings on you – the rest can’t be far behind!”
  108. >“They just didn’t… Now, I suggest we get out of here before they finish the job… Here, help me up…”
  109. >I threw the rifle’s sling into a comfortable position across my neck and let the firearm drape by my side before advancing toward Chloe
  110. >There was still a distance of about a dozen feet between us when I halted myself
  111. “Chloe… We… We both know what happens when a pony touches someone… what about a half-transformed person? I don’t have any gloves…”
  112. >“Probably nothing too bad, right?”
  113. >Nothing ‘too bad?’ What the hell was that supposed to mean?
  114. “Can you stand up on your own? That would be… best…”
  115. >Chloe glanced at her hands and feet, and after a deep inhale and a primeval grunt, she elevated her knees and palms a couple inches, such that she was resting on her fingers and toes
  116. >“Does this…”
  117. “Come on Chloe, you’re a human! Two feet!”
  118. >“Damn it, Peter, I can’t! I’m still myself mentally but obviously that’s not the case physically! I need somepony to help me!”
  119. >A shiver ran up my spine as Chloe’s words resonated through my head
  120. “What… What was that last sentence you said?”
  121. >“I need… some… body… to help me… I need somebody to help- Look, you try getting the grammar correct when your parents taught it to you like that since foa… childhood!”
  122. >I took a couple horrified steps backward and wrapped my fingers around the grip of the idle firearm at my side
  123. >Chloe, still suspended on her toes and fingers, tried to match my pace, but only succeeded in moving a quarter step as her foot slid out of its ill-fitting shoe
  124. “Please… Please forgive me… I can’t help you…”
  125. >“Peter… Don’t do this… I’ll give you anything you want… You already took all of my belongings so you owe me one… P-Please… I d-don’t want to be a pony… I-I-I… I don’t think…”
  126. >As I fought to get my own quickening breathing under control, she was met with silence, save for a long, tremulous exhale that seemed to fill the cool room
  127. >“Look, at least don’t let me get stuck in this half-turned state… I don’t… I don’t even know what memories are mine any more… I can’t remember the pasture I grew up in, or my family…”
  128. >I ran my finger over the edge of the rifle’s trigger guard, quietly contemplating whether such a declaration was enough to justify what I felt was right in this situation
  129. >Not DESIRABLE by any means, but RIGHT nonetheless…
  130. >It was only going to get worse for Chloe from here on out, and whatever smiling pony became of this, even if it supposedly retained her memories, would be a shell of her former self
  131. >The kind of pony that… well, if I knew Chloe enough, she wouldn’t mind putting out of its misery, and doing sooner rather than later
  132. >I met her misty eyes with the best emotionless expression I could muster, and with a tortured sigh, I checked that the rifle’s safety was on and whirled it only my back, next to the backpack
  133. >Maybe… maybe it was the ‘right’ thing to do, but I wasn’t ready for my own blaze of glory yet, and nothing would bring the ponies running quite like the crack of a gunshot…
  134. >There was still work to be done if I were to prevent this from happening again…
  135. “I’m sorry Chloe… I’m so sorry…”
  136. >She attempted to push herself forward, only to collapse to her side as her pants snagged on what would soon be hocks, and her strength failed in what would soon be her forelegs
  137. >After double-checking the backpack’s zippers, I turned toward the exit door behind me and approached it, pausing only briefly as a string of gently-spoken words caught up to me
  138. >“I thought you wanted to be friends…”
  139. >While releasing a tender sigh, I wrapped my fingers around the door’s handle
  140. >I did, Chloe… I did…
  141. >After registering a swift exit from the room, I soon found myself in a small meeting area that featured a few chairs near its center and a door on each end
  142. >Once each of the locks had been clicked shut, the corridor became profoundly silent – silent enough to hear Chloe’s sobs clearly through cracks in the vents as I settled into one of the seats
  143. >Her weeping persisted for five full minutes, during which I was repeatedly tempted to return and bring an end to the half-transformed victim’s troubles, but I never acted on the impulse
  144. >My anxiously bouncing leg finally found peace when the door from which Chloe had entered opened again, inviting the buzz of a new pair of curious voices
  145. >“-saw that she went in here?”
  146. >“Yeah, and I hoped that using her as bait would help me snag another… ah, horseapples, I guess he saw through it”
  147. >“Don’t listen to her, dear, she’s admittedly a bit crazy, but hopefully you can trust me when I say we’re here to help our new friends”
  148. >While I could tell the stallion was directly addressing Chloe, she remained quiet except for a few intermittent bouts of shifting Pegasus feathers
  149. >“Crazy? I thought it was a great idea… Admittedly, I probably took it too far, but next time if I could just get, like, a single small patch of fur on ‘em, that would be great”
  150. >“It certainly beats going up against some of the humans that’re adamant about not snuggling with us – they pretty much cancel themselves out, also nullifying any ‘guns’ they have”
  151. >“Oh wait, no, never mind, that plan wouldn’t work…”
  152. >“Uhh… Why not?”
  153. >“Well, there’s no way Storm Cloud would let me count them both if all I’m doing is befriending one human halfway, and then they do the rest. Geez, she might not even let me count one”
  154. >A lengthy pause followed before the stallion’s heavy hoofbeats trekked across the room, approaching an audibly distressed Chloe whose ailing hands and feet fought for purchase on the floor
  155. >“My name’s Morning Star, and this is my very good friend, Clementine Breeze. We’re here to help you…”
  156. >Chloe issued no response through the gentle sobbing that had taken root within her troubled mind
  157. >“It’s okay… he may have left you, and I know it hurts, but true friends never will… Never will… I promise…”
  158. >After a couple more sets of hoofbeats rang out through the air just beyond the wall, Chloe’s tears became slightly muted, as though buried in the stallion’s embrace
  159. >A dynamic wingflap and the clicking of hooves heralded the arrival of the Pegasus – presumably Clementine Breeze – at Chloe’s side a moment later
  160. >Gently rustling wings announced when she’d blanketed her victim in a cozy drapery of Pegasus feathers, much like those Chloe would probably soon be putting to use on others…
  161. >I glanced at the rifle sitting leisurely in my lap, quietly contemplating whether I should turn the tables on these ponies – whether I should effectively use Chloe as bait to bring THEIR downfall
  162. >With the ponies all clustered together in the room and focused on turning her into one of them, it’d be incredibly easy to throw open the door and take them out with a few quick shots
  163. >Incredibly easy? Maybe just a little too easy?
  164. >If only I knew how many other ponies were within the rifle’s earshot to begin swarming the ‘bad man’… It could be just these two, or it could be a hundred... I was limited to twenty rounds…
  165. >“You’re practically a member of your new herd already… and what an adorable, handsome Pegasus you’ll be…”
  166. >The pitch of Chloe’s crying descended as the grim hug continued, ultimately falling silent after three or four masculine gasps to help steady… his breathing
  167. >“There, there… doesn’t that feel wonderful?”
  168. >Bones popped and clicked as various parts of his body contorted into those more closely befitting a Pegasus, as fingernails turned into hooves, arms turned into forelegs, and ears drifted up
  169. >“We’re almost done, then we can go out and play…”
  170. >His rhythm of tears had been fully supplanted by happy gasps as waves of bliss rocked his body, replacing the person he once was with a new headspace completely comfortable as a pony
  171. >With an ecstatic cry, the new Pegasus stallion sacrificed the last of his fading humanity, slumping to the ground with a few faint clicks of hooves and bathing in the transformation’s afterglow
  172. >“Thank… thank you both…”
  173. >“You’re very welcome”
  174. >“Peter wasn’t willing to do that… I thought he was a real friend… But all he did was steal my belongings and… abandon me…”
  175. >The new stallion let out a dour sigh before Morning Star’s reassurances broke through his anguish
  176. >“It’s okay… we would never, NEVER do anything like that… If you want, you’re more than welcome to have lunch with us! You wouldn’t believe how wonderful carrots taste!”
  177. >“Well, I did already eat, but maybe… Clementine, you could show me how to fly? I’d like to find my friends from… before... Have you seen a pair of greenish unicorns hanging out together?”
  178. >A brief pause followed as the ponies enquired amongst themselves
  179. >“I don’t suppose we have, but don’t worry, we’ll help you find your herd!”
  180. >A melody of hoofbeats played as the newly bolstered group of ponies trotted back toward the lecture hall’s far door, finagled the knob with either their teeth or hooves, and exited the room
  181. >The neighboring meeting area in which I sat reestablished its placid atmosphere, disrupted solely by the uneasy drumming of my fingers and the familiar zip of a backpack opening
  182. >After fishing around for the journal and pencil stashed within one of the outer compartments, I flipped to the page with notes I’d taken about transformed former humans I once knew
  183. >Well, to be more precise, the last page bearing such information, out of four pages
  184. >My eyes wandered to the last entry on the page, featuring bullet points about a former Carmine University custodial worker who’d fallen to a small cuddly horde a couple buildings over
  185. >She was now blissfully cantering through the meadows with her friends, having been swiftly turned into a red, curly-maned mare before I even registered what had happened
  186. >My gaze meandered lower through the journal, finally settling upon the blank, slightly yellowed lines at the base of the page
  187. >On this canvas, I recorded Chloe’s former name, date and location of transformation, and everything I could recall from what she’d told me about her life before everything went to hell
  188. >After several attempts to forcibly steady the shaky pencil in my grip, I also wrote down her final words, and the fate that had eventually befallen her
  190. >I figured that, someday, this information could be used to create a proper memorial to those who’d been lost, as I couldn’t imagine what last rites were appropriate in the moment
  191. >First things first though, I needed to find some way to either reestablish order, or get in contact with someone who could…
  192. >As I shook my head out of reverie, I glanced up at the clock hanging over the disheveled cabinets of the engineering laboratory, and found that my mind had been wandering for ten minutes
  193. >It had been about twenty-four hours since I last saw Chloe, or the stallion that had superseded her, and since then, I hadn’t come across a single other human
  194. >Things were definitely looking bleak for my solitary self, making my mission to get the university’s radio working again all the more crucial
  195. >After flipping back to the promising schematic hastily scribbled in the journal, I etched a few check marks next to some of the parts before returning the journal to the backpack
  196. >My hand lingered in the backpack’s void for a few seconds as I retrieved a half-filled water bottle within
  197. >After making quick work of the cap, I took a few generous gulps of the refreshingly cool water, only to be met with nature’s call a few seconds later
  198. >As I rose to my feet, zipped up the backpack’s contents, and slung the garment over my shoulder, I double-checked my pistol and gently hefted the steely salvation in my hand
  199. >I always abhorred stepping out into hallways, as you could never easily tell whether there were ponies anywhere along its length until they would’ve already had a chance to see you
  200. >However, as I craned my neck through the laboratory’s doorframe, all appeared to be quiet
  201. >Somewhere beyond the fiberboard and girders hanging over my head, a steady rhythm of hoofbeats echoed sharply down a similar hallway, but that wasn’t of immediate concern to me
  202. >With careful footfalls, I closed the distance down the corridor, past an ample scattering of water fountains, trash cans, and office doors, before making my way to the bathroom doors
  203. >Ostensibly, it didn’t matter which one I went into, but habit drove me semi-arbitrarily to the men’s room
  204. >Its door had been propped open with a pale yellow custodial sign, most likely a forgotten remnant from whomever was cleaning the building following the conclusion of Friday’s classes
  205. >As I retrieved a flashlight from my backpack, I stepped into the spacious men’s room, kicking aside the sign and plunging the room into momentary darkness amid the continuing blackout
  206. >Naturally, the light switch would’ve been ineffectual, but as the flashlight blinked to life a moment later, it provided more than enough light to lock the room’s main door in my wake
  207. >“Oh, hayseed…”
  208. “Oh, fuck!”
  209. >As a shot of adrenaline coursed through my blood, I urgently raised my pistol and flashlight toward the unseen voice in the room’s far corner
  210. >The circle of light was soon occupied by a red pony sporting a short grey mane, his squinted eyes poking attentively from beneath the far end of the sink counter
  211. >“Would you mind not shining that light in my face? Pony eyes are kind of sensitive… not that you’d know”
  212. >As I shifted the flashlight’s beam from his face to his hooves, the puzzle pieces fell into place regarding where I’d heard this familiar voice before
  213. “Morning Star, I’ll blow your fucking head off if you try anything. Is there anyone else in this room with us?”
  214. >While I kept him locked in my peripheral vision, the highly illuminated focus traipsed about the room and found nothing
  215. >“I made sure there wasn’t. Only unicorns can actually lock these feather-fluttering stall doors, so it’s just me in here. Sorry if you wanted somepony else as a cuddle partner”
  216. >He rolled his eyes and sighed as though he were already bored with the conversation and would rather steer the topic towards tax code
  217. “Don’t play games with me! I’m the guy with the pistol pointe-”
  218. >“Yeah, I saw. But if you were going to shoot me, I presume you’d have done so by now. It doesn’t seem to be a concern that you’re going to hurt your ears, so my guess is you’re chicken”
  219. “Chicken? Enlighten me, how am I chicken?”
  220. >“Come on, dude, if you fire off a gun in here, everypony in the tri-state area is going to hear it and come running. And I don’t suppose you want to have your final stand in a dark bathroom”
  221. >If I were to be completely honest with Morning Star, I’d tell him that I didn’t want to have a ‘final stand’ at all if it could be avoided or it didn’t accomplish anything…
  222. >“I know it may seem scary, but trust me on this: You can keep running for a long time without actually getting anywhere… I don’t know where I’d be if not for my friends”
  223. “Oh yeah? How many of your victims has that soundbite actually worked on?”
  224. >“That was spoken from the heart, dude. As a human, they told me that all I did was hurt myself when I tried to run from the herd… You don’t look to be much better off, yourself”
  225. >I readjusted my grip around the pistol, giving my fingers a brief reprieve from the slippery sweat that had gradually begun accumulating
  226. “Sure, I believe you. Just like how you spoke from the heart when you used Chloe as half-transformed bait to try and spread your infection to me, before I could know what was happening”
  227. >He smiled and weakly chuckled, but it was a morbid laugh laden with far more regret than acknowledgement of anything funny being said
  228. >“Okay, to be fair, that wasn’t my idea. Clementine Breeze comes up with these schemes and I’m roped into following along with them”
  229. “Schemes? Schemes for turning people into ponies?”
  230. >Morning Star released a long exhale, allowing his eyes to wander about the room before his thoughts fell into place and he drew in a deep breath
  231. >“Alright, so her idea behind that one was that, since we heard both of you were brandishing guns, we couldn’t go after you directly without a significant risk of harm”
  232. >“Ideally, infecting Gusty Gale, or, well, I guess his… her… name was Chloe when you knew her, not only made her more docile, but if she could touch you, the effect would be passed along”
  233. >“She walked right into our ambush. Granted, Clementine Breeze got a bit overzealous when she found her new friend was going to be a Pegasus and wanted to fill out the wings first”
  234. >“Still, as a proof of concept it was a fantastic way to spread friendship without arousing too much opposition, and I’m so doggone mad that she canned the idea”
  235. >“She’s got this big idea about counting the number of friends she makes – I guess it’s a contest or something – and it just… it consumes her!”
  236. >“It’s like, ‘Oh, we can’t do this, we can’t do that, because somepony else will get the credit’ she pretty much says”
  237. >“When we first became friends, it was because she relentlessly pursued me through a forest for hours INSTEAD of going after easy targets”
  238. >“She still deeply cares about me – don’t get me wrong – yet I can’t help but feel as though her individual success and power has overtaken the compassion and friendship mentality”
  239. >“Last night when Daisy determined that I should be the one to lead the charge against the city’s utilities, I was trying to figure out, you know, what cell towers or buildings were important”
  240. >“Clementine Breeze was more than happy to accompany me for the sake of my protection, but as the early morning hours wore on, she was just like a filly in a candy store”
  241. >“While I was busy shutting down systems so that the humans couldn’t create a panic or effectively fight back, she was running through the utility buildings tackling anyone she could”
  242. >“It turned out that numerous places had technicians working the overnight shift, and nopony else – nopony at all – had picked up the idea of going after them, so she got a lot by herself”
  243. >“When we got to the pair of communication towers in the town’s north end, she hastily flew to the top and threw the equipment groundwards so we could advance to the next buildings”
  244. >“And long after we got done with that, well, she continued relentlessly looking for people, and not necessarily just because she wanted to show them how wonderful it is to be friends”
  245. >“Now it feels like… instead of her following me to help keep me safe while I complete my work… I’m following her like a gun-toting lackey on a safari hunt…”
  246. >“You should consider yourself lucky that she refused to call attention to the fact that you’ve been freely walking around campus all this time – she still insists on being the one to get you”
  247. >“She doesn’t like sharing the glory of each friend with others, so there was a bit of kicking and screaming – temper tantrums – when everypony else showed up around here last night”
  248. >Morning Star let out a prolonged noise that fell somewhere between a groan and a sigh, and was all-around overflowing with lamentation
  249. >“I’m just worried she’s going to get herself hurt one of these days…”
  250. >I momentarily moved the pistol to cover a cough, but it was unyieldingly clear that Morning Star showed no intent to attack as he, too, mulled over the words still lingering on the air
  251. “How many people? How many people could one pony get in those buildings?”
  252. >“In the utility buildings she got fifteen total. Overall, her count’s up to twenty-two… me included”
  253. >My blood went cold as I thought about the twenty-two lives that had been cut short by a single pony’s unfettered resolve… Twenty-two sets of hooves, twenty-two pairs of pony ears…
  254. >I could only hope they were different or less successful than her, otherwise the effect of this single pony would be… what’s twenty-two squared? And then… what’s it cubed?
  255. “How many have you gotten, Morning Star?”
  256. >“Not so sure about that… Three? Five or six? It’s been a lot less than her; I’ve just solely focused on making sure other ponies have an easier time making friends”
  257. >Even if Morning Star technically only had a quarter as many friends as his associate, I shuddered to think how many people had fallen to an equine destiny because of his actions
  258. >Hundreds… thousands…
  259. >The moment I knew that things were going to get bad quickly was when, not only had the power gone out in my house, but cell service had also gone down on an otherwise clear night
  260. >It reeked of intentionality, and without any way to warn the outside world, the first way others would find out would be from a pony embracing them in an innocent, unsuspecting hug
  261. “Is that why you’re making no effort to befriend me here and now? You’ve already done enough to bring ruin upon humanity – what’s one more person?”
  262. >“Call it what you want; I’m just doing the job I need to do”
  263. “Well, doesn’t that sound familiar? Heartless bastard, you have no idea how much I want to shoot you right now…”
  264. >Morning Star simply shrugged, his eyes practically glazing over with boredom, probably on account of the fact that he’d often heard similar lines over the past couple days
  265. >The following seconds were far tenser for me than him as he took a seat beneath the sink counter and poked at the tiles with his hoof
  266. >I awkwardly went to relieve myself at a urinal with one hand still firmly directing the pistol’s aim toward him, while the flashlight rested in a clamp between my teeth
  267. >It was less than sanitary, but the arrival of the apocalypse hadn’t exactly elevated my hygiene expectations, and it’s not like there were better options available
  268. >At least the water-based infrastructure hadn’t been in his sights…
  269. >When I turned my body back to Morning Star, his eyes were wandering over the ceiling tiles’ design as though he’d practically forgotten about my presence
  270. >Yeah, except, the moment I leave, you’re going to be running off to tell your friends about me… You won’t even give me the good graces of a head start…
  271. >As I yanked open the restroom door, I could at least take solace in the fact that its handle would be more cumbersome with hooves than it was with hands, yielding a few precious seconds
  272. >I did my best to remain quiet as I jogged down the hallway toward the stairwell, my pistol leading the way as its cold steel muzzle probed for the warm furry muzzle of any pony lying in wait
  273. >Far behind me, a fortepiano clamor of Morning Star slamming the restroom door and then fleeing down a separate hallway commenced the countdown’s ticking
  274. >If I stayed in this hallway I’d be truly screwed, and while the engineering building was certainly large, the thought of engaging in an indefinite siege here made my hair stand on end
  275. >I needed to get out, and first, I needed to get out of this building’s basement
  276. >To my horror, a distant thunder of hoofsteps was already rumbling through the girders far above, worrying me before I even got to the utility door separating myself from the stairwell
  277. >My heart raced as the thought crossed my mind that a pony may have preemptively noticed Morning Star’s absence and alerted the rest of their herd, whipping a flurry of hooves into action
  278. >The best I could do, in any situation, was press onwards as I threw the door open to reveal the marble steps of one of the building’s grandiose stairwells
  279. >With my pistol fixated on the stairs’ apex, rays of daylight cut through the musty air filling the cramped quarters, the brilliant radiance spilling in through a plethora of ground-level windows
  280. >All I needed to do was open one of them… freedom… escape…
  281. >As I cautiously pushed upwards into a hallway featuring a long line of office doors, the pistol spun about while the air filled with the semi-remote thunder of hooves and muted shouting
  282. >I couldn’t tell exactly where the ponies were, but as I briefly paused to ensure I didn’t misstep, the hallway just beyond an ajar utility door to my side exploded with a tremendous crash
  283. >Somewhere just beyond, a mare was domineeringly sending forth a curt tirade of menacing words
  284. >Instinctively, I thumbed at the pistol’s safety to ensure that it was ready to fire, aimed through the crack provided by the slightly open door, and lined up the sights with…
  285. >Holy shit, it’s a human! How did HE survive all this time?!
  286. >I shoved the door open and lunged into the hallway, wedging the entrance tightly shut behind me so that any pursuing ponies couldn’t easily catch us from behind
  287. >The man standing between me and the orange Pegasus a few yards beyond was unwaveringly fixated on her, and as he raised his hands in terror, I could see he woefully lacked a weapon
  288. >His posture communicated one of near-paralysis as his eyes darted over the Pegasus’ flared wings, locking up after realizing that his escape options where severely limited
  289. >Before he could do anything too rash, I charged forward and knocked him to the ground, planting the sole of my shoe on his shoulder so he wouldn’t be able to move around too much
  290. >It certainly wasn’t gentle, and I verily regretted slamming his face into the floor and knocking the wind out of him, but worse things have happened in less dire circumstances
  291. >The Pegasus grinned wickedly in the direction of the gun now levelled in her direction, paying it far less heed than the tempting prospect of increasing her score by two with a single attack
  292. >My gaze rapidly vacillated between the pony and the human beneath my foot, as I hadn’t gotten a good enough look at him to ensure that he was, indeed, fully human
  293. >That is to say, I didn’t know whether he was really worth saving, or just a helplessly infected victim coerced by this Pegasus who had done the very same with Chloe…
  294. >My cursory glances, however, proved very promising – from head to toe, his coloration seemed positively bland
  295. “Holy cow, look at you! You’re quite a sight for sore eyes!”
  296. >I lowered the pistol and snagged its front sight on the base of his shirt, dragging the grey and blue cotton fabrics along as a sizable patch of skin came into view… devoid of fur or feathers
  297. >Looks like I got here just in time, man… Today’s your lucky day…
  298. >As I eyed the orange Pegasus anew, she flicked an ear and continued carefully studying the pair of humans before her, which she undoubtedly hoped would soon represent easy prey
  299. “Clementine, I don’t believe we’ve met – I’m sure you’d like to befriend this one?”
  300. >“You bet your apples I would – got twenty-two friends just like him – but something tells we you’re going to be less than cooperative in handing him over”
  301. >I tried to sneak a wry smile, but instead found myself troubled by the sudden grappling of the man beneath my foot, his sudden movements proving tricky to compensate for
  302. >As I struggled to solidify my balance, I leaned more weight into his back while the pistol’s slipped along his spine and into the air
  303. >While I tightened my grip on the firearm and looked at the agitated pony, the man let out a weak cry, apparently apathetic of how close his wrestling had brought him to getting shot
  304. “Sorry, Clementine, but this one’s mine”
  305. >I couldn’t fathom why a seemingly full-blooded human would rather take his chances with a Pegasus like Clementine Breeze than with me, but for some reason, he renewed his fight
  306. >Maybe panic combined with too much late-night television, and he thought I was going to take him back to camp to cannibalize him?
  307. “Hey, whoa, stop fighting, I’m one of the good guys”
  308. >“Fuck you! Get off me! Get away!”
  309. >As one of his legs took a decently powerful, yet poorly aimed, swing at my crotch, I did everything I could to help quell his fears
  310. >His quickening breathing provided a clear indicator that I wasn’t doing a very good job
  311. “Calm down, you’re going to be alright… Just relax, alright? Nothing bad’s going to happen to you”
  312. >With one foot still planted on the unmoving tile, I adjusted my posture so that, not only did I have a shoe on his shoulder, but I could pin his shifting shoulder blades using my free hand
  313. >In light of the fact that my gloves had been stashed in my backpack, I couldn’t shake the slight unease that I may have missed sight a small patch of fur somewhere
  314. >Nonetheless, as I planted the base of my palm on one shoulder blade and three of my fingers on the other, I noticed nothing out of the ordinary that could signify fur or hoof growth
  315. >After doing so, I glanced back at Clementine Breeze, the restless Pegasus now methodically shifting back and forth with slightly folded wings that ruffled with the hallway’s slight breeze
  316. >Her ears twitched and spun about, and as I listened closely, I could tell exactly why
  317. >Only a few inches through the mortar composing the walls, or a few inches beyond the steel composing the ceilings’ and floors’ girders, were numerous herds of ponies
  318. >And boy, they all wanted to make some new friends today…
  319. >“No, please! At least let me take off my clothes, or something! You won! Stop, stop! You won!”
  320. “Sshhh… not so loud…”
  321. >I pressed into the man’s back with renewed force as he continued to struggle, his breathing quickening further as primal grunts bellowed forth from his lower gut
  322. >Within a few seconds, the quick gasps of air died away, and he began to relax… and relax… until his whole body had fallen limp beneath my foot and hand
  323. >As I moved my free hand to the front of his face to check for airflow, as well as to his neck to check for a pulse, I let out a sigh of relief that I hadn’t killed the only other human in town
  324. >Still, there was a limp body beneath my foot, and no fewer than a half dozen ponies who would eagerly descend on him soon if I didn’t get both of us moving
  325. >“What the hay did you do to him? I can’t befriend him if he’s dead, you know”
  326. “He’s not dead, he just passed out because he was scared of… oh… shoot, I told him my name, right? He does know I’m a human?”
  327. >“Yeah, oops”
  328. >After shrugging almost imperceptibly, Clementine Breeze absentmindedly licked her lips and primed herself in a position signaling an eager readiness to pounce
  329. >I unflaggingly kept her in my vision, but with thoughts of escape consuming my mind, I was crushed to scan my surroundings and find no ideal route of escape
  330. >On one side, a multicolored aura of several unicorns’ magic had enveloped the doorway leading from the stairwell in the corridor’s midsection, the hefty locks shuddering under the force
  331. >Behind us, an unwavering rhythm of crashes rang out from the steel utility door as a pair of determined ponies drove their hooves into it with steady resolve
  332. >There were no escape routes except… maybe…
  333. >As I shut one eye and stared down the pistol’s sights, the solution finally clicked
  334. >Except for going past Clementine Breeze…
  335. >I mean, I’d been scared of taking the shot before this because the herd was going to converge on me… but that didn’t seem to be a concern when every pony in town was here already
  336. >I straightened out my arm in the hopes of staving off tinnitus, gently fanning my fingers outwards and rewrapping them in a firm grip around the pistol as I aligned the sights
  337. >“You won’t do it. I know you won’t do it”
  338. >The front sight drifted to Clementine Breeze’s burly chest of fluffy, orange fur, bracketed by her anxiously twitching wings, and halted there as I released a long exhale
  339. >I barely even registered the sensation of gently squeezing the trigger, or the initial crack of gunpowder, or the puff of disturbed fur as the bullet met its target
  340. >A moment later, however, I did notice the deafening roar echoing through the hallway, despite my ears registering a high-pitched ringing over it all
  341. >I noticed Clementine Breeze’s eyes go wide and her stance weakly shudder backward, while her ears suddenly found themselves at attention
  342. >And most of all, I noticed the growing spot of red that attempted to compliment her lurid orange fur to the side of her torso
  344. >As a narrow trickle of blood began to snake its way down Clementine Breeze’s chest and pivoted toward the upper portion of her leg, the Pegasus’ weakened muscles started to tremble
  345. >I didn’t know whether the bullet was a direct hit to any vital organs given its downwards trajectory to the diminutive mare
  346. >However, her strength was visibly sapped, so it clearly did a lot of damage in one form or another
  347. >She gently lowered herself into a seated position before gravity brought her further downwards, collapsing through the final inches with reckless abandon
  348. >From her uncharacteristically meek posture, she slowly let her head roll in whatever direction it chose, bringing her gaze to focus on nothing in particular
  349. >Her half-lidded eyes were glazed over, and short, labored breaths issued forth from her flared nostrils & ajar mouth as she abruptly found herself amidst a battle for her life
  350. >After a few seconds of aimlessness, she directed her attention inaccurately in the direction of the listless man beneath my foot, sporting a desperate, pleading, and guilty expression
  351. >“Can you wake him up…”
  352. >I peered at her sluggishly preoccupied face through the pistol’s sights, lining up my aim with a spot squarely between her eyes
  353. “Why would I owe you any favors?”
  354. >“Come on… I don’t… I don’t want to die… Please… He’s an EMT… He’ll know what to do…”
  355. >I’d never put much thought into how much energy it took to cry, but even as Clementine Breeze’s gasps became choked and increasingly strained, tears gathered in the corners of her eyes
  356. >Her ears, once perked and attendant, began to falter into a flattened state against her head as their utility waned, like the first petals of a dying flower beginning to wither away
  357. “Well, he’s pretty well knocked out at this point”
  358. >“O-O-Oh… Okay…”
  359. >She tried to raise her eyes to meet mine, but as her skirmish with gravity ended in a poignant loss, her vision stalled at the level of the horizon
  360. >It wasn’t angled high enough to focus on me, and it wasn’t low enough to notice the pool of deep crimson gradually spreading beneath her wound
  361. >While paused halfway, she performed the slowest blink I could imagine, gradually rolling her eyelids shut and narrowly open again over the span of several seconds
  362. >“Blank… B-B…”
  363. >The mare fell silent as a weak, trembling exhale escaped her throat
  364. “What is it, Clementine?”
  365. >“Blanket…”
  366. >She softly lowered her head to the floor as her body began to shiver, even though wrapped in the plush down of her feathers and a cozy layer of fur
  367. “I’ll see what I can do for you, Clementine, you want to take a nice nap?”
  368. >A weak sigh of affirmation heralded the final drips of lifeblood slipping from Clementine Breeze as she let her eyes slump closed, her muscles relaxing from chest to tail
  369. >Given that I’d come to tune out the frantic cries of the nearby ponies and each panic-stricken assault they levied against the doors, the corridor became remarkably tranquil
  370. >There were two inert bodies at my feet, but as I glanced down at the grey hoodie draped over one of them, the gentle rise and fall of respiration could be discerned through it
  371. >The same couldn’t be said for the unmoving orange fur coating the other body
  372. >We were sitting ducks if we stayed in this hallway, considering there weren’t any other humans for miles with which the hundreds of ponies around here could occupy their time
  373. >I clicked the pistol’s safety on and tucked it into my belt, seeing as I’d been too hasty to find a proper holster for it, but would still need two hands for what I was about to do
  374. >As I stooped down to pick up the man, I tried to do so as gently and noiselessly as possible, but it was trivial after the loud crack of the gunshot that left my ears still faintly ringing
  375. >I didn’t do a great job either, as the act of hoisting him into a fireman’s carry over my shoulders prodded him with the rifle in my backpack, and a distressing grunt could be clearly heard
  376. >Nevertheless, as I carefully trudged in a generous arc around Clementine Breeze’s body, the hallway ahead looked clear…
  377. >We were making progress…
  378. >Proceeding to the hallway’s corner, I lowered one hand toward my waist in expectation of ponies lying in wait around the wall, hoping to ambush the markedly armed humans
  379. >None materialized as the remaining half of the dark hallway came into view, the interior walls bearing no windows as a singular battery-operated string of lights weakly illuminated the chaos
  380. >The corridor’s length was filled with numerous curious artifacts of human civilization throw intermittently in small heaps against the walls
  381. >Papers… office supplies… a couple of large, heavy filing cabinets… a desk here and there…
  382. >This certainly seemed to be an odd place for these furnishings… wouldn’t they be more appropriate within the offices a few yards away?
  383. >I mused over the mysterious tumult for a few moments before a sharp thump on a door near one of the piles attracted my attention, an unseen pony attempting to breach the barricade
  384. >The closer I looked, the more it became obvious that the filing cabinets had been intentionally piled against some of the doors, while the doors that could actually be locked had been sealed
  385. >Holy shit, Clementine Breeze was so intent on being the one to make the kill, that she was willing to shut herself in the pincer with her prey? That’s gutsy…
  386. >Her hubris, while tragic for the recently deceased hunter, ended up playing into our hand, as the ponies found it considerably difficult to quickly chip away at the hallway’s defenses
  387. >All the same, I couldn’t count on humble locks, a wedged door, a lack of windows, or even the seemingly adamantine might of steel and concrete to hold back the herd’s resolve forever
  388. >The volume of the ponies’ cacophonous kicks grew louder with each additional pair of hooves, and as crashes continued echoing from every direction, I knew they only needed one success
  389. >Moreover, attempting to defend the corridor if there were multiple simultaneous entries would be a near-impossibility
  390. >Clementine Breeze had been only one pony, and moreover, an unmoving target fully convinced I wouldn’t take the shot after granting me plentiful time to line it up
  391. >While at the firing range, I’d never practiced with moving targets… Or, for that matter, multiple assailants…
  392. >As I readjusted the man hanging over my shoulders, I freed up a hand to begin probing the twenty to thirty doors filling the hallway’s hundred-plus foot length that stretched out before me
  393. >I first tried the doors on the hallway’s eastern side, considering that, just maybe, one of the rooms could’ve connected through to the parallel hallway at the building’s edge
  394. >That hallway had a promising bank of office doors offering possible egress, and moreover, the machine shop’s door was there, and that’s where I needed to go to find the radio’s final parts
  395. >As I wiggled the doorknobs, many appeared to be sternly locked, and by the fifth failure, my uneasy hope was beginning to evaporate
  396. >A breakthrough came immediately after, but not only with the very next doorknob I tried, but also with the distant crash of the utility door exploding open somewhere around the corner
  397. >With my impromptu barrier no longer forestalling the deluge of furiously shouting equines from rushing into the hallway, I hustled into the dark room, threw the door closed, and locked it
  398. >“Clementine Breeze, are you okay? It sounded like there were fireworks in here”
  399. >“Melody, didn’t you hear what Cobalt said? She… it wasn’t…”
  400. >“Clementine, wake up! Why are you sleeping?! Wake up! Wake up!”
  401. >Even as the rattled exchange between the two unseen stallions became louder and more frantic, it was drowned out by a second door breach and a group of mares surging into the hallway
  402. >“The two of them are around here; there were two voices I heard!”
  403. >“Yeah, I heard that too – where’d they go? Which door did they go in?”
  404. >“I didn’t see, did you? None of these doors have windows… uh…”
  405. >A brief pause ensued, most likely from the ponies either diligently unlocking hallway doors for their comrades, or attempting to gain access to one of the rooms
  406. >The fleeting tranquility was interrupted when a cry of frustration was accompanied by a hollow, metallic crash of hooves against one of the distant doors
  407. >“All these feather-fluttering doors are locked, and my hooves already hurt like all get out!”
  408. >“Mine too! The utility door back there was hard, hard steel!”
  409. >“Me three! Would somepony please find Blueberry?”
  410. >“He doesn’t have his lockpicking tools with him, you know. He left them at home…”
  411. >“Don’t worry, we’ve got time – we’ve got nothing but time at this point”
  412. >“Okay, yeah, I mean, so long as the Pegasi are keeping watch over the outside of the building… I’ll go find him. Hang tight, everypony”
  413. >Serenity briefly returned as a couple sets of hooves departed down the hallway, audibly weaving around the ponies scattered along its length
  414. >As the man over my shoulders began to stir, I suddenly dreaded the notion that he could awaken kicking and screaming, if he were under the impression that ponies had descended on him
  415. >With his intermittent groans of slight disorientation becoming less hushed with each passing moment, I retrieved my flashlight, clicked it on, and maneuvered through the pitch black room
  416. >The room’s back wall, which caught much of the light, featured a plethora of safety and academic posters, and of far more interest was a door of unknown destination
  417. >I filed its presence away in the back of my mind, taking note of its simple lock that, if I wanted to open the door, could be quickly undone… hopefully not by any dexterous unicorns, though…
  418. >Upon arriving in a small side room far away from the hallway door, I rolled the man into a seated position against some cabinetry, propping his body up as his head lolled to the side
  419. >I eased myself next to him, wrapping a hand over his shoulder and covering his mouth shortly before he unconsciously muttered a few muffled words
  420. >Within a minute or two, his eyelids slowly fluttered open, becoming wide and frantic as he tried to figure out where he was, and more importantly, what species he’d become
  421. >I raised my free hand a few inches in front of his face and waggled my fingers, which initially confused him, but importantly, succeeded in stymieing his outcry
  422. >As he raised his own fingers into view and carefully studied them, I retracted my hand that had been cupped over his befuddled mouth
  423. >He glanced at me with bewilderment in his eyes, even as his expression attempted to present an ephemeral effigy of a smile, before speaking up in a gentle whisper
  424. >“What the hell happened…”
  425. “Your fuckin’ guardian angel showed up, kid”
  426. >As a calm sigh of relief echoed through the cramped alcove, I leaned forward to gently shut the side room’s door, putting two doors’ safety between us and the herd of equines in the hall
  427. >Upon moving to secure the door, my heart sank when I realized that we wouldn’t have the luxury of a locked second barrier, as any unicorn could swing the handle with an ounce of effort
  428. >However, as the two of us rose to our feet and my newfound companion redoubled his trust in his hands, it was consoling to talk without suspicion of being easily heard by prying ears
  429. >“Why did you save me? Where’s the orange Pegasus? And who the hell are you?”
  430. “My name’s Peter… sorry for not saying so earlier when things got a bit rough”
  431. >“No kidding, I… I thought I was done for. Call me James. Seriously, I owe you one if we make it out of this”
  432. >The low, dull crash of hooves rang out in the dim void as an impatient pony hastily and fruitlessly labored at one of the many doors speckling the hallway’s edge
  433. “Yeah, about that contingency… To get you up to speed, I brought you into… well, one of the labs in here. The ponies just don’t know which one but they’re doing their best to figure it out”
  434. >“That Pegasus was watching yours and my every move – I’m surprised you got out of her sight”
  435. “Clementine Breeze isn’t, um, she isn’t on my list of concerns anymore, and while I wish she hadn’t brought this on herself…”
  436. >Even though James and I were both standing, it was still a bit tricky to simultaneously lift up the edge of my shirt, slightly contort my upper body, and point the flashlight at my waist
  437. >Nonetheless, as the brilliant white light glistened off the shimmering steel of the handgun tucked into my belt, James saw and understood my implication loud and clear
  438. >As if to drive the point home, I tenderly plucked the pistol from my belt and stared at its imposing silhouette in my hand, its weight one cartridge lighter than it had been a few minutes ago
  439. >“Peter, you… you killed her?”
  440. >James tried to maintain the stern expression written across his face, but as a series of slight tics wriggled through, he appeared preemptively disturbed by the answer he knew he’d receive
  441. “This was a pony that didn’t want to ‘befriend’ you, James. She kept score of the humans she caught as though it were a game, and we were nothing more than a two point addition”
  442. >“Well, sure, I mean, I think I actually talked to another pony who was in on that… Storm Cloud, this chipper little purple Pegasus… it’s just… it’s not as though she was the root of all evil…”
  443. “Well, I hope for her sake, as well as ours, that she doesn’t take this… ‘hunting’ thing very seriously. I’m not in this to kill ponies for the fun of it”
  444. >“I didn’t say she’s a senseless ‘hunter’ with a death wish… Just because she keeps track doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about her friends afterwards…”
  445. >Conflicting forces cancelled out as they tried raising my eyebrows in stunned surprise, while concurrently furrowing my brow in tremendous confusion
  446. “And how could either of us know whether she cares about the people she turns? I mean, no offense, but someone would have to be insane to do that kind if recon in the lion’s den”
  447. >“I was led to believe that, even now, she still looks out for her friend, Sky Meadows. I think that was the first pony she befriended, and she cares about her more than befriending new ones”
  448. >James spoke unfalteringly, firmly gesturing with the aid of an outstretched finger at his talking points afloat in the air
  449. >I shifted the weight between my feet as a feeling of unease bubbled up within my otherwise pervasive bewilderment
  450. “How the hell would you even know something like that? What would possibly lead to you say that so confidently?”
  451. >“She had the chance to turn me into one of them, but she let me go so that she could be with Sky Meadows after they’d spent ten, eleven, twelve hours apart”
  452. >As a shiver ran up my spine, I abruptly started to feel the weight of the pistol in my hand again, the dense steel asserting its heft anew
  453. >First it had been Chloe, now you, James?
  454. >One of these days, I was going to find a human who had genuinely succeeded at surviving the herd, but my optimism of that day being today was rapidly fading
  455. >I thought I’d been thorough enough looking him over, checking his back, hands, head – the whole nine yards short of rolling him over or pulling down his pants…
  456. >But… yesterday, Clementine Breeze was talking about how it would help to be crafty with how little infection could be spread, ‘a single small patch of fur’ was all she said would be necessary
  457. >What if James had tucked a few strands of tail or a few tufts of fur beneath his pants, and he was as much of a time bomb as Chloe had been?
  458. >For all I knew, I’d not only put my own escape in jeopardy, but also willingly hoisted a doomed man over my shoulders, to fall into what may have been just another clever ploy by the ponies
  459. “This Storm Cloud pony was just, like, basically on top of you, and then said, ‘fuck it, never mind?’”
  460. >James, now levelling his gaze in my direction, paid particular attention to the pistol as he silently recognized my own uneasiness
  461. >“I mean… basically... It happened a couple of times, but each time, Sky Meadows stopped her from going forward with it…”
  462. >A soft click accompanied the pistol’s safety going off, and while I didn’t have a ton of space in the cramped room to put more than five yards’ distance between us, I backed up to the wall
  463. >James, illuminated in the flashlight’s circular radiance, featured the mortified expression of a deer caught in the headlights as the gun’s business end rose into view, wavering in my shaky grip
  464. “I’m s-sorry… James, turn arou-”
  465. >“Peter, stop, I never said I was infected…”
  466. “Turn around, put your hands on your head, face the door. I… I’m not going to shout or else the ponies might hear”
  467. >“Look, I’m telling you, dude, I’m not infected… please… you have to believe me on this…”
  468. >I avoided exerting verbal austerity in hopes of keeping him calm, but when I made a pair of jittery coaxing motions with the pistol, he was clearly unnerved
  469. >As James bit his lip and slowly obeyed my commands, his pleading expression turned away at the last possible moment, lest he pass up a few more moments to garner my sympathies
  470. “I’m not going to execute you here and now, if that’s where you think this is going. I already said: I’m worried about the ponies hearing. So that’s not going to happen”
  471. >James released a long, tremulous exhale as he gently stroked his gloved fingers in slow, introspective motions through his hair
  472. >“You think I may as well already be one of them, though…”
  473. “It isn’t your fault. The ponies use it like a hunting tactic. Get one person sufficiently horsed up, then turn nearby humans friendly enough to play ball with the herd”
  474. >“They didn’t do that to me… I looked myself over and didn’t find anything… hell, as far as stomachs go, I don’t think ponies can even digest meat, yet Sky Meadows fed me some when…”
  475. >James trailed off and I felt a shiver rack my body as the thought of the ponies somehow spiking the food supply arose in each of our minds
  476. “It’s my wish that we didn’t have anything to worry about. Again, I’m sorry about what I’m asking you to do. Truly, I am. Take off your clothes, all of them”
  477. >James was slow to comply, eventually removing his gloves amid a pair of sharp snaps before rubbing his eyes with the base of his exposed palms
  478. >“Peter, you’re not going to make me walk the plank, are you? I don’t want to be one of them… I… You know I’d just give your location away? It’d be as bad for you as it would be for me…”
  479. “James, we’re going to look you over, head to toe, and it’s my sincere hope that we don’t find anything, and that’s the end of it”
  480. >He stared distantly at his feet while tenderly pulling the hoodie away from his body, revealing a faded Carmine Ambulance logo on a curtain of dark blue cotton
  481. >“And… And if we do?”
  482. >I rewrapped my fingers around the pistol’s grip as I let out a soft, apprehensive sigh
  483. >If the situation came down to it, the truth was going to hurt, but considering James seemed to have mentally held up thus far, he deserved to hear it unabridged
  484. “You’ll have been… doomed from the start... I’m sorry... I won’t kill you – the least we can do is make sure the herd only grows by one today… I just hope it doesn’t come to that…”
  485. >James slowly nodded as he pulled the shirt over his head, revealing the well-formed muscles of his back, and more importantly, a distinct and utter lack of misplaced feathers
  486. >His shoes and socks followed, and after a bit of fidgeting and the metallic scraping of a belt latch, his jeans fell to the floor and were kicked away
  487. >For the sake of letting James keep a shred of his dignity, the pistol’s aim descended so he wasn’t being held at gunpoint during the final steps
  488. >My face turned profusely red on account of the necessary embarrassment, and I could only pray that James didn’t sense it in my voice
  489. “Underwear too… I just… want to be sure you don’t have a tail or stallion parts tucked away. Again, I’m sorry…”
  490. >James suppressed the audible groan I expected from him, but an annoyed roll of his head said everything he refused to vocalize
  491. >After dropping his drawers, he gradually turned himself in a circle, slowly enough to leave no reasonable doubt that he was fully human, but with certain eagerness for the ordeal to end
  492. >“Peter, how come you don’t need to go through this shit? How do I know you’re not half pony under there?”
  493. “If I were half pony, I wouldn’t have saved your ass and shot ‘another herd member’ in the process. Now do you want to keep talking, or get dressed?”
  494. >Finding my response sufficient, James nodded in affirmation and let his expression soften upon gradually acknowledging he was no longer being held at gunpoint
  495. >While keenly searching for the socks that went with each shoe, he shot me a lukewarm smile
  496. >“You know, if the ponies rushed in here right now, they’d probably set the record for a conversion. A dozen of them, no clothes on me, man to mare in four seconds flat”
  497. >Much as I didn’t want to laugh at his slightly morbid joke, I was unsuccessful at stifling a slight chuckle as James donned his pants
  498. “I’m glad you’ve at least got a sense of humor though it all”
  499. >“Well, It’s not the first time in the past couple days I’ve been strip-searched on suspicion of ponydom…”
  500. “And I’ll say it again. I’m sorry. It’s just that I almost got turned by a half-transformed person myself, so I’m a bit jumpy”
  501. >James was still thoroughly embroiled in redressing himself, and in particular retying his shoes tightly, but his pace slowed noticeably amid his interest in the new conversation topic
  502. >“Half-transformed? What, like… they escaped… when they still had their wits about them?”
  503. >I drew in a long, thoughtful inhale as I mulled over the events of Saturday – how I’d come to know Chloe, build her trust, lose it, and abandon both her and her humanity, all within an hour
  504. “Not exactly… as I sort of mentioned, Clementine Breeze floated the idea of using half-transformed humans as bait, as a trap of sorts”
  505. “They took a person I trusted – well, nowadays, that would be any human, but yesterday, it was a former Carmine student named Chloe that I stumbled upon in one of the lecture halls…”
  506. “Anyways, she got caught in an ambush, and even though she truly thought she’d escaped, it was only because the ponies had willingly let her do so after transforming her a little bit”
  507. “Their idealized goal was for her to approach me, since she already had my trust and was convinced she’d be okay, and spread the infection before I even realized that she was a goner”
  508. “For all I know, it might’ve worked if not for her Pegasus wings tearing through her shirt… I have to count my blessings that was the case”
  509. “I wish there was something I could’ve done for her, but half-transformed humans, really no matter how far gone they are, are like hand grenades after the ponies already pulled the pin…”
  510. >I sighed in grieving memory of the teal Pegasus stallion that had supplanted my short-lived friendship, and after doing so, noticed James staring contemplatively at the floor
  511. >He was putting his hoodie back on with automatic absentmindedness, buried so deep in thought that it would seemingly take a week in an excavator to fully dig him out
  512. “James, is something wrong?”
  513. >He blinked rapidly before returning to reality, allowing his gaze to slowly drift upwards and reestablish eye contact with me
  514. >“Yeah… Yeah, no, I’m fine. Sorry”
  515. “What were you thinking about? Did you catch everything I was saying?”
  516. >“I did – Chloe, half-transformed humans as bait, hand grenades – I’m just wondering… you know… these ponies are really crafty… and… it’s just the two of us now… how fucked are we?”
  517. >James’ voice seemed to waver slightly, as though he may have had other thoughts on his mind, but I didn’t attempt to pry further toward hostile, or possibly nonexistent, worries
  518. >That was exceptionally true when I considered the importance of the question he’d verbalized
  519. “I mean, as you’ve probably noticed, the town’s essentially been cut off. There was a stallion by the name of Morning Star who made quite sure that was the case”
  520. >“That, plus the blackout… I haven’t communicated with anything or anyone outside of a couple miles’ radius since Friday… The last I saw, there were smoke plumes clear out to the river…”
  521. >I scratched the back of my head morosely, considering it was undeniable that the ponies had swept through a massive swath of land in only a few hours, with no sign of letting up
  522. >Still, it hadn’t seemed fast enough to fully engulf an entire continent in just the past two days, so, certainly, somewhere out there, a government and an army must’ve been kicking
  523. “My guess is, beyond the ponies’ reach – and I figure there has to be a front somewhere beyond the horizon – we can contact people. The university has a radio that can do just that”
  524. >James drew back his lips and narrowed his eyes, directing a distant stare at the floor tiles as though they held the grand answers to our escape
  525. >“Peter, I’m guessing you haven’t seen the radio, but my default assumption is that Morning Star smashed it”
  526. “He did, but he didn’t do a good job of it. I didn’t know what I’d make of my master’s degree in electrical engineering when I first got it, but boy, it’s really coming in handy now”
  527. >I eagerly shifted my shoulders and took a knee in order to let my backpack smoothly slide to the ground, settling with a soft thud before the familiar jingle of the zipper heralded its opening
  528. >In my haste, I found myself grappling with the wrong zipper a moment too late, and my face turned bright red as the backpack’s main compartment spilled some of its contents to the floor
  529. >Not only did an apple, some bags of food, and a water bottle spill out, but so too did a bright pink My Little Pony figurine I’d snatched from an abandoned stroller in an act of macabre humor
  530. >I swiftly returned the figurine to the backpack, silently cursing the fact that my luck couldn’t have been much worse if the rifle had also fallen out and accidentally discharged into my foot
  531. “That was… that was definitely not the right compartment”
  532. >“Wow, didn’t realize a gun-toting badass like yourself was a brony, too”
  533. “I… I don’t know, I was trying to be ironic, y’know? Thought it was a funny thing to have when I found it. THIS is what I meant to open”
  534. >After triple-checking my hand placement, I briskly zipped open one of the backpack’s outer compartments, flashed its small heap of assorted electric components at James, and shut it again
  535. >I wiped my brow, which was the next best thing to wiping away my embarrassment, as a faint grumbling emanating from James’ stomach worked nicely to change the subject
  536. >“Uh… I’m sorry, I still haven’t had much to eat in the past twenty-four hours… I keep thinking I’ve found a food source, and then something happens, you know…”
  537. “Yeah, help yourself, man”
  538. >After picking up the apple and a small bag of chips from where they’d come to rest on the floor, I offered them with outstretched arms to James, though he initially seemed apprehensive
  539. >“Peter, I wouldn’t want to ask too much from you if it meant you’d go hungry, but I’ll at least take the apple for now”
  540. >James followed through on his word by snatching the apple from my hand, zipping open the pouch of supplies fastened at the side of his hip, and dropping it in
  541. >He gave the newfound prize a couple of gentle taps, with the supply pouch bulging slightly while he labored to zip it shut
  542. >I shot him an incredulous look as he stared at me obliviously for several seconds, seemingly unaware of the gentle gurgling through which his stomach was voicing its protest
  543. “James, seriously, I have enough food for, like, three people and no one else to share it with. I don’t want your rumbling stomach to give away our position once we’re outta here”
  544. >I shook the bag of chips at his general direction, sending forth a barrage of insistent rustling and attracting James’ attention as he licked his lips hungrily
  545. >Following a couple seconds of contemplation, he slowly reached forward, accepted the gift, and lowered himself into a comfortable seated position
  546. >I wasn’t surprised by the manner in which he greedily devoured the chips, especially when it was clear that his own stoicism was veiling the extent of his hunger a few moments earlier
  547. >Watching him ravage the bag of chips nearly prompted me to make a joke about him eating like a horse, but given the gravity of our situation, I felt it would be in bad taste
  548. >He still elicited a genuine, beaming smile as I offered him a sandwich from within the backpack, its bread glutted with a wide assortment of meats, cheese, and vegetables
  549. >After ardently retrieving it from me, he set the empty bag of chips on the ground and unwrapped the sandwich’s saran wrap with bated breath, as though its plastic were gold leaf
  550. >While he continued gorging himself ravenously on every morsel of food that had previously been rendered unattainable by the apocalypse, I did my best to explain the path forward
  551. “I have just about everything I need for the radio in here… Then it’s just a matter of putting the transmitter together in my office and getting this damn thing online”
  552. “It shouldn’t be too much of a hassle, you know, if not for the ponies. That’s always how it is, right? ‘Not too much of a hassle, if not for the ponies.’”
  553. “Anyways, the ponies don’t know where my super-secret lair… cave… whatever-the-fuck-you-wanna-call-it is, and I’m not planning on telling you either until the last min-”
  554. >As James furrowed his brow and sunk his teeth into the sandwich, I briefly averted my eye contact and let out a slow, guilty groan upon realizing my absence of tact
  555. “Okay, sorry, that sounds kind of mean. At least, if worst comes to worst and you inadvertently join them, I'll still have a chance. It’s not that I don’t trust your HUMAN self”
  556. >James stared blankly and continued to chew on a bite of sandwich as I awkwardly scratched the back of my neck
  557. “Uhh, so, yeah, I’ll… I’ll at least tell you the office is somewhere over in the sciences building, next door… Not sure how we’ll get there when it sounds like they have Pegasi on watch…”
  558. “We’ll take it one step at a time… but now that I have all of these components, we’re totally ready for… no wait, there’s still ONE more thing…”
  559. >I released a long, tortured sigh and rubbed my temples upon remembering that the schematic, despite featuring a plethora of check marks, wasn’t completely covered
  560. “Damn it, I need a long, long spool of wire that I can run up the antenna. So as soon as you’re done with lunch, we’ll bust our way out of here and grab one that I saw last week”
  561. “If you know where the machine shop is, that’s where it is”
  562. >James nearly choked as he hastily swallowed his current mouthful of sandwich, stifling a cough while he did his best to respond
  563. >“The machine shop? Like, the machine shop with the door in the building’s eastern hallway?”
  564. “Yeah, that’s the one. Have you been there before? I saw you were an EMT with Carmine Ambulance, so I take it you were a student here?”
  565. >“Uhhh, yeah… yeah, I had some classes in that machine shop so I know exactly which room you’re talking about”
  566. >I furrowed my brow, as I couldn’t recall the school ever holding full classes in what I’d thought was one of the faculty-only shops, but I must’ve simply not been paying close attention
  567. “When was that class, last semester? Well, at any rate, there’s the door by which I entered the lab room, and there’s another door in the back that… I don’t know where it goes”
  568. >James and I both turned our heads as a soft, dull thud thundered through the walls, most likely from a pony taking an inquisitive, yet less than forceful, kick at a distant locked door
  569. “The ponies engulfed the one hallway, so I’m hoping that the other door leads us to the eastern hallway, in some way, shape, or form”
  570. “Once we’re in that hallway, we fight back any ponies we need to – hopefully fewer of them – get to the machine shop, and go from there”
  571. >James uneasily traced a long line with his fingers, rubbing his arm with visible nerves that refused to voice some bubbling conflict
  572. >“Peter, you saved me from the ponies, and bought me lunch to boot. I owe you one, so let me stick my neck out and go to the machine shop to get you this wire. It’s the very least I can do”
  573. “Come on, James, shouldn’t we go together? Two guns are always better than one if we… get into… trouble…”
  574. >The memory of Chloe flashed through my mind, the thoughts of her addled speech coming back as clearly as if she were awkwardly leaning on half-hooved feet in this very room
  575. >It didn’t matter that I had a gun… It’s good that there was only one of me…
  576. >“Peter, I can do this, and do it by myself. Where’s the wire you need? What does it look like?”
  577. >I chewed on my lip and sized up James, silently praying that this wouldn’t be the last time I’d see him as a human
  578. “You’re sure you can get it?”
  579. >“I can. If worst comes to worst and you hear my voice begging you to open the door while it goes up two octaves and starts giggling about rainbows, that’s on me. At least you’ll escape”
  580. >By no means was I ready to condemn the only human I’d seen in the past day, especially so soon after having come across him
  581. >Then again, it wasn’t a choice between him versus me getting ponified, rather, it was a choice between him versus BOTH of us
  582. “Alright, but don’t come crying back with your tail between your legs if they… literally give you a tail. If it’s really you at the door, tap twice, then snap twice. I don’t think ponies can snap”
  583. >“That works as well as anything else. Two taps, two snaps”
  584. “Right. The thing I need is a big wooden spool of white wire, should be next to the band saw with the red blade guard on it. You can’t miss it if you’re looking for it. Oh, and James…”
  585. >I picked up the pistol and ran through a quick check of its moving parts, the procedure for doing so now coming automatically with negligible concern about damaged rounds
  586. >After all the parts shifted back into their native positions with a metallic click, I handed the pistol over, a faint look of concern glimmering in James’ eyes as he hesitantly reached to receive it
  587. >“What… What are…”
  588. “I still have my rifle with me, and I can live without a sidearm if that’s what it comes down to. You know how to work this?”
  589. >“I-I do, though it’s been a few years. I mean, I… I REMEMBER everything but maybe my marksmanship is a bit r-rusty… M-My uncle let me shoot hay bales at the family farm…”
  590. “Okay, good. There’s fourteen rounds in there, after I used one to… you know… put Clementine Breeze to sleep. That pistol is yours now, for when you need it”
  591. >James tremulously applied a slight force to slide, checked the gun’s breach, and hefted the steel in his hand with a distinct lack of enthusiasm
  592. >“If I need it…”
  593. “No, trust me. WHEN you need it”
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